Friday, January 16, 2015

Making It Count

Nothing feels as good as success, does it?

Last month, I had the joy of reaching a long-time goal: paying off $6,500 in credit card debt.  Thanks to medical bills and grad school followed by a career change and a 60% pay cut, I'd been carrying that load around for years, making very little progress when it came to reducing the balance.  When the opportunity came to receive a promotion and small raise, I was determined to make every extra penny count.  Two years of hard work and determination later, I'm debt free and wanted to share some of the lessons I've learned in case they can help or inspire someone else.

1) It's possible to be content with less.  The world says more is better... more house, more vacations, more clothes, more stuff.  More of anything will make you happy.  Guess what-- it doesn't.  I down-sized from a two bedroom apartment to a mother-in-law suite with less than 500 sq ft.  My car has almost 190K miles on it.  I travel 3-4 times a year instead of once a month (or more).  All of these things have not only saved me money, but time and stress as well.  Simpler really is better.

2) It costs money to have friends.  In some circles this might not be the case but in my experience, friends can be expensive!  They want you to go out to eat, attend concerts and movies and sporting events, and every year have birthdays that deserve to be celebrated.  Despite the cost that can come with relationships, they are worth every penny.  In some of my more frugal times, I declined every invitation to socialize that came my way, and I was miserable.  I need my community, and if it means working a few extra social events into my budget, I'm happy to do so.  It's possible to be reasonable and have fun at the same time.

3) Working for free pays off.  Whenever I take spiritual gifts inventories, the gift of service always ranks in my top 3 scores.  Obviously, I love helping people!  What I've found, though, is that my willingness to serve can sometimes be a means for provision.  When people know you're willing to do anything, they're more likely to ask when they need your help- and often, they're willing to pay for it.  I've been hired as a baby-sitter, pet-sitter, house-sitter, tutor, life guard, plant-waterer, office organizer, interior decorator... you name it, I've probably gotten paid to do it.  I would do (and have done) many of those things for free, but my side jobs have played a big role in getting out of debt!

4) Giving is a lot more fun when you don't owe the bank.  No matter how frugal I tried to be, I never skimped on tithing to my church.  In my leanest months, I gave more just to test the idea that you can never out-give God.  (And yes, it's true!)  But once my credit card balance hit $0.00, the grip I had on my wallet loosened even more and giving to non-profits became not just an obligation or experiment, but a source of joy.  It's a great feeling knowing your money is making a real difference in the world, and not just going to the bank or getting wasted on a late-night trip to Starbucks.

5) Consumerism is a much bigger problem than we realize.  It isn't until we start tracking every dollar spent that we begin to notice how much of our  money is thrown away.  Everywhere we turn, there are advertisements telling us we need this.  Even if we're smart enough to realize we don't, the world will tell us that we deserve to get what we want.  And so we buy.  We spend.  We wear those labels proudly and post pictures of our stuff all over social media in the hopes that people will like us.  The bad news may be that consumerism isn't going anywhere any time soon.  The good news is that it's a game we don't have to play.  Be intentional with your money and rise above the gotta-have-its.

Getting out of debt is a slow and seemingly pointless race.  It takes work and time and sacrifice, but I know from experience that it's absolutely worth it!  The truth is, money is not ours but God's, and it's not until we have full control over it that we can truly be the stewards we were meant to be.  Stop making the rich people richer and start making your money count!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Lies: Uncovered

There are a handful of convictions I've always held, principles that have guided my actions for years.

  • If you tithe, it means you're a good steward of your money.
  • If you attend Bible studies and have a quiet time, you'll have a good understanding of Scripture.
  • If you volunteer at church, you're humbling yourself to the place of a servant.
  • If you donate Christmas gifts, canned food, and clothing, you're actively loving "the least of these."

They're lies, every single one of 'em.

Okay, so none of those things are bad in and of themselves, and in fact we're called to do each of them, but the problem lies in our motives.

I tithe so that I can spend the rest of my money however I want without feeling guilty.  I show up to church functions to see my friends.  I read my Bible because it gives me a sense of peace to be in God's presence.  I serve at church because a) my friends are doing it too, or b) I had a hard time saying no.  I donate "stuff" because it quiets my conscience and is easier than actually looking into the eyes of the poor.

If I'm being honest, these things have been bothering me for years, but not quite enough to do anything major about it.  And so began the month that God decided to stomp on my toes....

I said I lived for Jesus, but the truth was that Jesus really wasn't enough for me.  Not like He was for Vincent, Maureen, and the children from the garbage dump who sang about Him and dreamed dreams for the future.  The very thought took my breath away.  It was like an invisible veil had been lifted from my eyes.  I saw my life, my home, all the things that screamed success, and they were like dung. ~Kristen Welch, Rhinestone Jesus *

Ouch.  Maybe I feel empty because what I think will fulfill me just... doesn't.

If you truly love me, you will feed my sheep.  My people are crumbling and dying and starving, and you're blessing blessed people and serving the saved. ~Jen Hatmaker, Interrupted *

Ouch again.  Is this why my efforts feel pointless?  Because they're directed at people just like me?

The gospel of me helps us pick churches based on the music we like, sermons that speak to our daily lives and small groups that meet us in our life stages.  While all of these things can be strengtheners of our faith they often become the focus points of our faith.  The church has found itself in a place where it is more concerned with feeding itself than feeding the world. ~Stephen Ingram, Hollow Faith *

Okay, God, I might be getting the picture.

Friends, I think Jesus may look at His Church and be wondering, "How many more Sundays are you going to need before you're ready to actually do any of this stuff?" ~John Pavlovitz

Short and to the point.  Toes officially broken.

I have no answers, no revelations, no ideas about how to move forward, but I do know this: I want more than my toes to be broken.  I want my spirit, my very self, to be broken by the same things that break the heart of God.  I don't want to be lied to anymore (by the the world, or more sadly, by the church).  I want the Truth, and I'm thankful He's revealing it to me.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Difference of Christmas

Y'all know how I love a good plan. There are few things I love more than creating lists and accomplishing tasks and checking things off.  Seriously, it's so bad that when my friend finished her back-to-school shopping last year and wondered out loud how she was going to find the time to sort and label the mountain that is four kids' school supplies, one of them actually said to her, "Why don't you call Ms. Jen?  You know how much she loves to do stuff!"  I'm not even joking.  And it's true.  When I'm faced with two weeks off of work to celebrate the holidays, my default reaction to is start making a list of everything I want to do during the break.  I'm nothing if not intentional... especially with my time.

And this year?  Oh my, this year my plan for Christmas break was a good one.  Cleaning, writing, catching up at the office, sorting and decluttering in preparation for my move, and of course the usual baking, shopping, and celebrating that comes with the season.  And in between all of that, I was also going to take care of five dogs and two cats while their owners traveled for the holidays.  All in all, these two weeks were going to be just what I needed to recharge and whip things into shape.

The problem with having such a detailed plan is that things rarely happen the way we, well, plan for them to.  If you're a list-maker like me, then you also know how much God loves to derail our well-thought-out plans and instead likes to surprise us with things that keep us on our toes (and our knees).  As my luck would have it, I ended up coming down with the flu the last week before vacation.  So much for productivity!  Nothing says slow down like four days in bed, but even after I started to feel like myself again, the precedent for my vacation had been set:

Do what you can, and don't worry about the rest.

As it turns out, "doing what I can" meant not doing a bit of writing-related work.  I didn't blog, edit, or check Twitter for nearly three weeks.  I spent a total of 2 hours cleaning (yesterday) and a mere 3 hours at work trying to dig myself out of the hole I'd created while I was out sick.  I gave 3 Christmas gifts and sent 0 cards.  I spent what felt like hours driving from one end of town to the other, checking on, feeding, and snuggling with my furry friends.  I took daily trips to the park in an attempt to wear out a 3-month-old puppy.  I read when I had no energy to get out of bed, went out with friends when I did, and got to enjoy an impromptu visit with family.  I baked, but only half the number of cookies I normally do.

In other words, I didn't cross many things off my list, and I don't have many accomplishments to show for my almost three weeks off.  Nothing went the way it was supposed to.  A week in, I began to long for Christmas to be over because then I could get back to the life that involved a schedule and getting things done.  This life was different, and I wasn't sure I liked it.  Some time last week, it hit me.

Christmas is supposed to be different.  

When God sent His Son to live among us, He changed everything.  Nothing is what it was before. With the first cry of that tiny infant, He turned the world upside down.  It only makes sense, then, that those who thrive on going and doing and accomplishing should be forced to slow down.  Especially during the holidays. Christmas isn't about a lot of things the world tries to tell us it is.  It's about celebrating the day the world changed.  And even though I didn't spend my Christmas vacation like I thought I would, wrangling my messy life back into order, I experienced that change in my own way.  I was reminded of what really matters.  And even though I had a hard time accepting the difference of Christmas this year, my prayer for the new year is that things would stay different... because different is what happened when Christ came to dwell among us.